There is a cloud that hangs over the memory of Paul Fenton’s tenure as GM of the Minnesota Wild. And not without reason. It was a brief and tumultuous time in the franchise’s history.
In Fenton’s lone campaign as the organization’s architect, the Wild suffered an 18-point downturn, fell four spots to last place in the Central Division and missed the post-season for the first time in six seasons. Minnesota also executed some head-scratching moves, to put it mildly. The trade of Nino Niederreiter to the Carolina Hurricanes for Victor Rask has backfired in spectacular fashion. The shipping out of Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins for Ryan Donato hasn’t panned out. And the summer signing of Mats Zuccarello was positively perplexing given another high-priced veteran was just about the last thing Minnesota needed.
Amid the gaffes Fenton may have made, however, it’s becoming increasingly evident that he did manage to hit one major home run during his time with the Wild. With each passing game, the acquisition of Kevin Fiala from the Nashville Predators seems to have been Fenton’s masterpiece.
At the time, of course, the swap was maligned. Granlund was a prime-aged winger with two 20-goal and near 70-point campaigns under his belt. Fiala had one 20-goal, 48-point output to his name, but he was suffering through a decline in production in his third full NHL season. And the early returns did little to mitigate the concern it was another dud deal, Fiala scoring three goals and seven points in 19 games to end the season despite top-six minutes. Granted, Granlund wasn’t much better for the Predators, but that hardly eased the Wild faithful. Fenton had called Fiala “electric” and “a game-breaker,” but the signs of those qualities were far from apparent through the end of last season or, frankly, the earliest parts of the current campaign.
In fact, if we go back to the beginning of the season, things couldn’t have been going much worse for Fiala. After posting a single assist through the first five games of the season, then-Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau sat Fiala out. Getting back into the lineup, he played twice more before suffering a lower-body injury and subsequently sitting out an outing and playing a mere 11 minutes in the final game in October. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, a switch flipped in November.
It started with goals in back-to-back games and points in four straight and built to a five-goal, 11-point month. It carried on into a three-goal, 12-point December. And Fiala hasn’t slowed one iota since. He was named the NHL’s first star of the week Monday on the strength of a four-goal, nine-point output for the stunningly Western Conference wild-card contending Wild. And while that may seem nothing more than a weeklong hot streak, the reality is Fiala has been among the league’s brightest offensive players for months now.
Though Fiala isn’t hanging with the Leon Draisaitls and Connor McDavids of the league – a scant few are – consider where the Wild winger ranks among NHL scorers since the beginning of November. In 52 games, his 20 goals put him in a tie with Evgeni Malkin, Sean Monahan, J.T. Miller, Brad Marchand and teammate Zach Parise for 30th in the league. Fiala’s 28 assists rank 47th in the NHL since November, right alongside John Tavares, David Perron, Phillip Danault, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Matthew Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov. And there are only 27 players with a higher point total than Fiala’s 48 across the past four-plus months. He's outscored a number of legitimate NHL all-stars, including Mathew Barzal, Patrik Laine and Elias Pettersson.
If that doesn’t make Fiala’s offensive accomplishments stand out, though, it’s worth noting that he’s done brilliantly despite modest playing time. His 15:11 ice time average is tied for 199th among all forwards with at least 10 games played. He’s averaging less than 13 minutes per game at even strength. And while he’s a special teams fixture, six lineup regulars have a higher average ice time than Fiala’s 2:17 per outing. He’s tied with defenseman Brad Hunt in that category. But despite playing middle-six minutes for much of the season – and that has changed since Boudreau’s firing, as Fiala is averaging 17:53 across the past eight games – Fiala’s production per 60 minutes has been exceptional since he began hitting his stride in November.
Take his 5-on-5 numbers. Per hour of ice time at five-a-side, Fiala’s 1.14 goals ranks 36th among the nearly 450 players with at least 500 minutes played. His 1.24 primary assists ranks ninth. And there are only 13 players with a higher points rate than Fiala, who has scored 2.86 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 since Nov. 1. The all-strengths rates are just as glowing, too, as Fiala ranks 15th in goals (1.5), 14th in primary assists (1.42) and 10th in points (3.6). His company in the latter category is Nathan MacKinnon (3.7), Jonathan Huberdeau (3.7), Patrick Kane (3.6), Brad Marchand (3.5) and Mika Zibanejad (3.5). Good company to be keeping.
In excelling offensively as he has, though, Fiala is offering a whole lot more than vindication for Fenton. Truth be told, that might be of least importance. What Fiala has delivered Minnesota is the promise of a bright young playmaker up front. That’s exactly the glimmer of hope for the future that the Wild, who possess one of the league’s oldest rosters, so desperately needed. Among Minnesota’s six top scorers, Fiala, 23, is the only one who hasn’t yet celebrated his 30th birthday, and he’s showing signs of being the offensive driver the Wild must have if they're going to keep up with the juggernauts of the division.
Sustainability is the biggest question. Whether he can maintain this rate of scoring beyond this campaign isn’t yet known. Playoffs or not, Fiala's production has been and will continue to be a boon for the Wild. And if he’s only scratching the surface, Fiala has all the tools to become a top-six fixture in Minnesota for years to come.
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